On Suspending Our Cynicism: Auroville, India — By Jennifer Shipp
Asia India South Asia Trips

On Suspending Our Cynicism: Auroville, India — By Jennifer Shipp

It seems normal with all the coffee shops and souvenir stands (though Auroville is NOT a tourist destination), but Auroville is a little corner of the world that's brimming with crazy...
It seems normal with all the coffee shops and souvenir stands (though Auroville is NOT a tourist destination), but Auroville is a little corner of the world that’s brimming with crazy…

Auroville is a strange place. Anyone who reads the indoctrination materials for the city knows that the ideals it strives toward are, well…ideal and not remotely realistic. Sri Aurobindo and “The Mother”, Auroville’s founders, offer up communist principles in their books, but they note that the city is decidedly not communist. They claim that the goal of Auroville is to connect with the Divine Consciousness and that to do that, community members must not practice any religion. The city is said to belong to “no one in particular”, but it was very clear when we visited that though no-one-in-particular had been designated as worthy of belonging, a large number of people (including me) had be designated as unworthy.

So there are some problems with the principles undergirding Auroville. That’s not to say that the city doesn’t do some good things. For example, the areas of the city that we saw were relatively clean and well-maintained. But then again, the city of Auroville receives $200,000 USD per year from the Indian government. That’s quite a lot of money for a town of only about 2,000 citizens especially if you consider how far that amount of money would go in the Indian economy.

But when we visited the city, our goal was to suspend cynicism and, if possible, allow ourselves to be sold on living our lives solely with the goal of attaining knowledge of the Divine Consciousness. Suspending cynicism was hard though. The Matrimandir, an Epcot-Center look-alike in gold instead of silver tones is exclusive to members-only. Aurovillians go inside the Matrimandir to “concentrate” on the big glass ball that conveys light from the sun (or on cloudy days, a lightbulb) into the space. Non-Aurovillians can only stand outside and imagine the bliss of sitting in the pure white space filled with light. A generator rumbles along in the Area of Peace, inside the Park of Unity, providing A/C (essential to those achieving Divine Consciousness) to the enlightened ones who are “concentrating” inside the big gold golf ball.

Standing at the Matrimandir overlook in the Peace Area with ten to fifteen other tourists, I couldn’t help but see that this Non-Tourist Attraction was a tourist attraction. Walking away from the Matrimandir, a little bucket solicited for my donations. Cynicism kicked in automatically. I couldn’t help it.

At the Visitor’s Center, cynicism turned to certainty as Lydi and I reviewed the literature that had been written by “The Mother”. According to this woman, once known as Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa, it’s best if children are raised apart from the adults so that they can mostly just collapse when they feel tired and experience almost no structure whatsoever over the course of their young lives. The idea seemed good in writing, but in practice, “schools” that operated on this principle in Auroville didn’t work very well. Traditional schools, complete with structure and books, were added to the community straight away. In fact, schools helped Auroville capitalize on an important resource for cheap later: native locals.

By creating schools for Tamil Nadu locals, Auroville was able to lure in cheap and free labor from the surrounding communities to help build it’s vision. With all the super-cheap or free labor, Auroville shouldn’t need $200,000 USD/year. Nor should it need profits from at least 3 (but maybe 5 or more) coffee shops and souvenir shops.

One of the goals of Auroville is a life of liberty without the encumberances of personal possessions. So rather than owning property in Auroville, most people “rent”. But they don’t call it “renting” to (sort of) side step the fact that someone still has to “own” the property that’s being rented.

Most of what makes Auroville interesting is how it names things. For example, we got lost on a path called “Certitude”. The Area of Peace had a generator blaring. The Park of Unity was filled with a bunch of tourists snapping selfies. Books proclaim that Auroville is Not Communist (if The Mother says it, it must be true). The introductory movie said that Auroville is Not a Tourist Destination (but there were more tourists there than I’d seen the whole 2 weeks prior in Chennai). The labels themselves were supposed to be enough to glaze over the reality of Auroville, which is that, after 48 years of existence it hasn’t grown. The initial population was around 2,000 and today’s population is the same.

I don’t feel like it would be fair to ignore the problems with Auroville since I could see them and hear them so plainly with my own eyes and ears. As a traveler, and someone who’s always interested in off-beat, unsual things, I’m glad that I saw it, but I think it’s unfortunate that people actually get sucked into it and take up residence there. The linguistic tricks that are used by Auroville aren’t that sophisticated, but there’s just no way for me to be diplomatic about it. Auroville “wants to be a cult”. Any city that wants to take your children away and isolate them from their parents should be suspect and avoided as a potential place of residence. A community or a country that claims that everything will be shared and nothing will be owned is essentially communist and thus doomed to some level of failure economically.

Visiting Auroville was entertaining for the day, but a structure like the Matrimandir is not necessary for achieving Divine Consciousness. Let’s be real, folks. In fact, such a structure is an extravagant and worldly antithesis to Divinity. But architecturally, the golf ball is interesting. The concept of Auroville is intriguing. I mean, sure…go see it. Just don’t move there.

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